Claimant seeks damages for injuries sustained in a traffic accident on June 2,
1996, when the motorcycle he was operating struck the curb on the outer edge of
New York State Route 31 in the Hamlet of Savannah in Wayne County, New York.
Claimant contends that the defendant was negligent in failing to properly
implement its road design plan for this highway, which required specific signage
to alert drivers of a sharp curve in the road, which claimant failed to safely
The trial of this claim was bifurcated, and this decision deals solely with the
issue of liability.
Claimant, Nathan Cianciola, was injured on June 2, 1996, when the motorcycle he
was operating left the road after it struck the curb which formed the edge of
Route 31 in the Hamlet of Savannah. The accident occurred on a Sunday evening
at approximately 6:00 p.m., as claimant was proceeding westerly on Route 31 to
his home in Sodus. The weather was not a factor in this incident, since it was
clear and sunny, and the pavement was dry.
Claimant was riding his 1980 Yamaha 850 Heritage Special motorcycle at the
time. Claimant had owned this motorcycle for approximately one and one-half
years prior to the accident, and by his testimony considered himself to be a
recreational motorcycle operator.
Claimant testified that on that evening, he was proceeding westerly on Route 31
at approximately 55 miles per hour, the posted speed limit. As he approached
the Hamlet of Savannah, he observed a "Speed Zone Ahead" sign and then a "30
MPH" speed limit sign as he entered the hamlet. He reduced his speed
accordingly, and approximately 100 feet later, observed a "90 degree left-curve"
sign. He testified that in anticipation of the curve, he down-shifted his
motorcycle from fourth to third gear, and applied his front brake. He then
testified that as he approached the curve, he realized that his speed was too
fast for the severity of the curve, and he therefore drove to the right of the
highway in an attempt to keep control of his vehicle. However, as he struck the
curb, he lost control, and he was pitched forward, off his motorcycle, resulting
in his injuries.
Claimant also testified that he had never traveled on this portion of Route 31
prior to this date.
In the mid-1980's, Route 31 in this area had been the subject of a State
Department of Transportation Bridge Rehabilitation Project. The original design
plan called for a straightening of the sharp curve which existed at the point
of the accident. This plan, however, could not be fully implemented unless
several historical structures were razed. Therefore, after consideration of
environmental, social, and economic factors such as these, a decision was made
to retain the tight curve, although it was reconstructed with a longer radius
(from a 180 foot radius to a 200 foot radius). The highway was widened,
although the number of driving lanes (two) remained the same, and curbing was
placed through the hamlet. However, the final plans did require that a "25 MPH"
advisory speed panel be placed, below the 90 degree left curve sign on the same
post, so as to warn approaching motorists. John Fietze, a Department of
Transportation engineer involved with the creation of the project plan,
testified that the placement of this speed advisory sign was not discretionary,
but was mandated by the final design plans.
Testimony further established, however, that this speed advisory sign was not
present on the date of the accident.
Undeniably, the State has a non-delegable duty to design, construct and
maintain its highways in a reasonably safe condition (
Friedman v State of New York
, 67 NY2d 271). This non-delegable duty is
broad enough to encompass an obligation on the part of the State to properly
post, maintain and position signs along a State highway, designed to warn
motorists of conditions and hazards which may lie ahead (Merrill Transp. Co.
v State of New York
, 97 AD2d 921). The State, however, is not an insurer of
the safety of its highways, and the mere occurrence of an accident on a State
highway does not necessarily render the State liable (Hearn v State of New
, 157 AD2d 883, lv denied
, 75 NY2d 710). In order to
establish liability, a claimant must prove: 1) that a duty was owed to claimant;
2) that a breach of that duty occurred; and 3) that such breach proximately
caused the injuries to the claimant (Solomon v City of New York
, 66 NY2d
1026). Additionally, before negligence can be found, claimant must establish
either that the State created or had actual or constructive notice of the
existence of an unsafe or dangerous condition and then failed to take reasonable
measures to remedy that condition (Brooks v New York State Thruway Auth.
73 AD2d 767, affd
51 NY2d 892).
In this case, it is undisputed that the "25 MPH" speed advisory panel was not
in place on the date of the accident. Various witnesses, with personal
knowledge of the accident scene, all testified that they had no recollection of
ever noticing such an advisory sign having been placed with the curve warning
sign. This testimony has established, to the satisfaction of the Court, that
the speed advisory sign was never properly posted by the State during its
reconstruction project in the mid-1980's. Quite simply, the State failed to
properly follow and implement its own plan by failing to place the "25 MPH"
advisory speed panel as it was required to do (see, MUTCD W9-1X; and see, 7
NYCRR § 239.1).
Based on the foregoing, the Court also finds that the State had a duty to
provide the general public with this precautionary "25 MPH" speed advisory sign,
as it was mandated to do by virtue of the design plans that it had adopted. The
Court further finds that the State breached this duty when it failed to post and
maintain this sign, as required by its construction plans.
Having determined the issue of negligence against the State, the Court must
next consider whether this negligence in failing to implement its design plan
was a proximate cause of the accident in question.
Proximate causation in essence means a substantial factor causing an event.
Liability may only be imposed against the State in a case such as this when the
proof shows that the injuries resulted, in whole or in part, by a cause for
which the defendant is responsible (
Pontello v County of Onondaga
, 94 AD2d 427, lv dismissed
560). As such, it is claimant's burden to establish that the missing sign was a
substantial factor in the sequence of events that led to the injury (Nallan v
, 50 NY2d 507).
It is the position of the State that the absence of this speed advisory sign
had no bearing whatsoever on this accident, which it instead attributes to
claimant's excessive speed as he entered the hamlet, and his failure to perceive
the upcoming curve, which should have been readily apparent to him. In support
of its position, defendant points to the testimony of witnesses such as Deputy
Montemorano, who testified that he had driven his motorcycle through this curve
on many occasions at 30 miles per hour without incident.
This Court, however, finds that the testimony presented by claimant established
to the satisfaction of the Court that claimant would have reduced his speed in
response to a "25 MPH" advisory speed sign, if one had been posted. Claimant
impressed the Court as a responsible adult who complied with road markings and
vehicle traffic laws while operating his motorcycle. The Court believes that
claimant had slowed his vehicle to the 30 mile per hour speed limit in
accordance with the posted signs as he entered the Hamlet of Savannah, and
claimant's expert testified that claimant was driving at approximately 30 miles
per hour at the time of the accident. There was nothing to indicate that
claimant would not have further reduced his speed to comply with an advisory
speed sign had the State in fact installed the sign in accordance with its own
plan. Furthermore, there is also no question that this was a sharp, and
potentially hazardous, curve, even after the reconstruction project was
completed in the mid-1980's.
Accordingly, the Court concludes that the failure of the State to provide the
claimant and other motorists similarly situated with the speed advisory sign was
in fact a proximate cause of this accident.
In sum, and based upon the proof at trial, the Court is satisfied that claimant
has established that the State negligently failed to post and/or maintain at the
proper location the "25 MPH" speed advisory sign as it was required to do by its
own plan. There can be no question that the State was aware of this dangerous
condition, since its plan addressed this known danger by requiring the placement
of the speed advisory sign. The failure to adequately post and/or maintain the
speed advisory sign constituted a breach of the State's duty owed to claimant.
The Court has also concluded that this breach proximately caused the injuries to
the claimant herein.
The Court must therefore determine the comparative negligence, if any, of the
claimant. Claimant candidly admitted in his testimony that he was inexperienced
in operating his motorcycle, which leads the Court to conclude that some of the
liability for the accident must rest with him. Claimant testified that he was a
recreational operator, and had not been operating a motorcycle for a long period
of time. While the Court was impressed with claimant's honest testimony
regarding his lack of experience in the operation of his motorcycle, the Court
is also convinced that claimant lacked the experience to adequately respond to
the situation which confronted him as he approached this sharp curve.
Accordingly, claimant must be held proportionateley accountable for the accident
and resulting injuries which occurred.
After due consideration and a review of all the evidence presented at trial,
the Court finds that liability should be apportioned 75% against the defendant
State of New York and 25% against the claimant herein.
Any motions not heretofore ruled upon are hereby denied.
The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter an interlocutory judgment on the
issue of liability in accordance with this Decision. The Court will set this
matter down for a trial on the issue of damages as soon as practicable.
LET INTERLOCUTORY JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.